Whether you’re surfing on the North Shore of Oahu or skimboarding ankle biters, any experienced surfer can tell you that surfing isn’t a sport that comes with an easy benchmark for success. Put into practice first by high-born Polynesians, the surfing tradition has evolved as the centuries have, calling on generations of participants to learn the patience that comes with waiting for just the right wave and the select combination of skill and intuition..
The fundamental truth of surfing is this: Unlike politics and investment banking, you’re unlikely to reach those lofty peaks with only yourself in mind.
Engaging with the Sea
The best surfers learn early that, with respect for the wave comes respect for the ocean – at least in part because the sport itself is entirely contingent on nature's cooperation. If the waters are choked with trash, if the wind isn't moving, if any number of interdependent factors fail to come together at the right moment, no amount of skill on the board can change the outcome.
Though every surfer hopes for the chance to snag a snapshot moment on a high wave, the chance means waiting – sometimes for hours or even days – and accepting no certainty of reward at the end.
With the ocean currently under threat from an increasing litany of issues directly relating to change, including rising seas and pollution, surfers have begun to come together with astonishing political power. Several groups have called for cleaner beaches and a stronger movement to halt sea level rise – which continues to contribute to erosion in a growing number of communities, whose members are even now watching the stunning landscapes that once put them on the map slip irretrievably away.
One such community is the Save Trestles Campaign, which took action against plans to construct a road that would have endangered San Mateo Creek – a popular surfing spot and thriving habitat for marine animals. Other groups have singlehandedly, and often successfully, tackled environmentally destructive development plans and pollution, saving beaches and wild animals from habitat loss.
Of course, no surfer enters the water without the deeply held understanding that any wrong move can mean injury and even death – for themselves and bystanders. Surprisingly, attacks by marine animals are among the most common causes of injury, followed by wipe-outs on sand or rocky outcroppings.
A surfer who's miscalculated the energy and breadth of a wave can also easily be swept underneath, held down by a surging current, or knocked unconscious by a falling surfboard, all of which can lead to drowning or serious injury.
In the communal environment inherent to beach life, it’s nearly impossible, and always conspicuous, to surf without the safety of others in mind. Established beach etiquette, though still largely unspoken, arose as American surf culture did in the 1960s, as popular beaches became increasingly crowded and chaotic. The rules, though they vary by location and culture, are strictly enforced by most beach-goers, and those eager to cut corners for a shot at glory will often find themselves outnumbered.
Surfers also use shorthand to define the right of way in the water, and a line order that everyone is expected to follow while paddling out. The system is simple, but it works, ensuring that everyone in the water understands where to expect other surfers to appear and how to avoid them when necessary. Fewer injuries are typically reported at beaches with a cohesive system of rules, and, as a community, surfers have proven more than willing to embrace them.
Down to Mindset
Balancing over hundreds of feet of crashing water takes more than an afternoon of practice to master, which is largely why so many experienced surfers paddle out at nearly every available moment. Persistence is the key to mastery.
And persistence means falling hundreds, sometimes thousands of times, often in front of spectators, and running the gantlet of emotions that go hand in hand with continuous failure. And still, the best of the best are those still willing to get up, dust themselves off, and paddle right back out for another try. Like so many other difficult tasks in life, it usually is not enough to suffer a public fall only once.
With everything in the water in constant flux, nailing a perfect run means cultivating the ability to think far past the moment, without ever letting outside distractions in. As new contingencies evolve by the moment, even pitch-perfect accuracy and positioning isn't always enough, and, in many cases, success comes down to hard-won practice, and the ability to suffer with grace the consequences of wrong actions.
The Art of Technique
Surfing techniques, from the standard paddle to the more visually stunning front side snap, are nearly as individual as surfers themselves are. Those who stick with the sport often choose to brand themselves with signature moves, such as Australian champion Tyler Wright—who famously made the Big Frontside Kick her own. It's a recognized mark of a professional, to be able to bring a spark of creative flair to a sport that requires so much intensive focus. Generations of surfers – both pro and those at an amateur level – have upped the ante for newcomers by imbuing the sport with a healthy sense of creative, as well as physical, competition.
In any sport with a diverse range of participants, equipment selection often comes down to skill and often requires a helping hand from a professional in the know. Surfing is a great sport. Not only is it fun and a great way to remain in shape, but it can also help build character. Respect for nature and yourself remains an essential element of surfer culture.